Hubbard Street demands attention

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago helped get the 2014 Spoleto Festival started with an outstanding ensemble of dancers and an impressive and challenging program at the vacuous TD Arena. The company is fluent in the many languages of dance and easily conveys the spirit and sensibility of each choreographer in performances that present groundbreaking works from all corners of the globe. But the dancing was at times overshadowed by the complexities of the themes.

"Gnawa" by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato began the program with a high-energy and dynamic work showcasing some of the company's powerhouse performers whose sheer physicality was most beautiful during the duets. Women in black dresses and their male counterparts wearing off-white pants offered movement that melted and rolled through seemingly boneless bodies like water. (The costumes were designed by Modesto Lomba.)

The sound score combined rhythms of Northern Africa and melodies of Spain and suggested a world of people in relationship with one another. The dancing was stunning and sensual with circular pathways and intricately athletic partner work.

William Forsythe's "Quintett" is a complicated work for five dancers that illustrates the death of Forsythe's wife from cancer. At first it is intriguing in its disjointedness, with an abstract narrative of loss, hope, fear and joy. The three men and two women dance apart and together in both playful and violent ways to a repeated phrase of music from a Gavin Bryers composition, which becomes incessant, like a memory that's hard to shake.

There were moments of great dancing juxtaposed with a quirkiness that reflected the personalities of the figures on stage. The work came to an end with one figure moving until the curtain closes. The piece is arduous in its length and the audience must work to stay with it, but this discomfort was perhaps meant to convey the experience of illness and death.

"PACOPEPEPLUTO" by Alejandro Cerrudo is a lighthearted series of male solos set to the crooning of Dean Martin, known as the "King of Cool." Dressed in dance belts rather than the expected suits, the men moved with humor on a dimly lit stage. With spastic ticks and over-the-top bravado, they brilliantly performed a spoof, with the last song, "That's Amore," bringing forth the most chuckles from the audience.

The last piece, "Falling Angels" by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian was created between 1986 and 1991 and has become one of Kylian's signature works. Eight women in black leotards began moving in percussive and isolated ways to the hypnotic and phased-percussive score of Steve Reich. Shapes of the archetypal woman flash through the bodies of the dancers with movement communicating themes of sexuality, body image and self-control. The women work in unison as a tribe until various figures splinter off and break down the overall conformity of the group. The group holds the audience with their intense gazes and powerful movement, but at times seem to fall into darker psychological places.

Hubbard Street continues to prove itself as one of the country's strongest contemporary dance companies. Its challenging programming requires the audience to engage in complex ways with the work, not merely sit back and enjoy the virtuosity of the performers.

Eliza Ingle is professor of dance at the College of Charleston.